Chapter 6: How do I use Linux?

Linux: Let the fun commence!

Using Linux really is a lot easier than it used to be. When Linux first came about, it was for computer enthusiasts, tinkerers and geeks. Now with Linux powering everything from Android smartphones to smart washing machines, Linux is such a big part of our life, using it for an every day operating system really is a no brainer.

Now that you have installed the system onto your computer, it’s time to have a quick introduction to the Linux Desktop.

The many choices of  the Linux desktop

One of our Quick Tips about GNOME and KDE etc, talks about the availability of Window Managers or Desktop Launch the GNOME Settings tool from Ubuntu UnityEnvironments. Depending upon which Distribution of Linux you have (eg, Ubuntu, Fedora, elementaryOS), they ship with different Desktop Environments by default. Ubuntu (until October 2017) ships with Ubuntu’s own desktop called Unity (screenshot to the left). Fedora and CentOS (as well as hundreds of other Linux variants) ship with the GNOME desktop environment. OpenSUSE and tens of other Linux variants ship with KDE by default. Then there are other, generally more niche Linux distributions that ship with alternative window managers such as i3, AwesomeWM and xmonad.

Choice is a fantastic thing, but as a fledgling Linux user, this can also get confusing: which desktop environment is best? Which is easiest? What tools do one provide vs the other?

There is no one-size fits all answer, and that’s why Linux users are spoiled for choice, however to make this chapter simple, I’m going to assume that you will be using the GNOME desktop. I’ve chosen GNOME because it’s arguably the most popular Linux desktop environment available at the time of writing. It’s definitely one of the (if not the) easiest desktop environment’s to use, and it looks really nice too. GNOME has been around sine 1999. Now on its 3rd major release, its stood the test of the time, and kept up with the times too.

All this said, remember, you are totally free to choose any Linux desktop you like. Simply install it using your software installation tool and try it out!

Using the GNOME Desktop

The GNOME 3 desktop
The GNOME 3 Desktop interface, showing the Activities / Apps view

The Activities View

When you first start up your desktop, you’ll see a fairly spartan view. This can be tricky for the first time user in a way. There is an empty desktop, and a single bar across the top. The bar simply shows the word ‘Activities’ at the left. A Clock in the middle and a few icons at the right hand side.

Clicking on the Activities text brings up a ‘dock’ with icons on the left hand side (example image above). This dock works in a similar way to the one in macOS. It shows you any running applications (apps), as well as any ‘favourited’ apps. The apps that come ‘favourited’ as standard in Ubuntu GNOME edition are (from top to bottom) Firefox web browser, Evolution email, Empathy (chat), Rhythmbox (music player), Photos, LibreOffice Writer (word processor), Files (file explorer/navigator). Note that the apps that come with your Linux distribution may vary from the ones listed here. The final two icons are GNOME help and ‘Show Applications’. Show Applications works just like the similar icon in the Android phone UI: it shows you all of the applications that are available on your system. If you download/install new apps, they appear here. You can add them to your favourites by right clicking their icon and selecting ‘Add to Favorites’.

Left click on any of the icons and as you’d expect, the app is launched. If you right click with your mouse, you will see a context menu. For example, right click on the Firefox icon and you’ll see a few options such as ‘New Window’. The options available are obviously different depending on the app, thus the name ‘context menu’.

The Activities/Apps Display, showing the current running Apps as well as the Dock and the virtual desktop view.
The Activities/Apps view, showing the current running Apps as well as the Dock and the virtual desktop view.

The image on the right shows the Activities view. The dock shows the favourites on the left hand side. Notice how there is a blue ‘underline’ beneath the Firefox and Files icons. This shows that those apps are running. You’ll notice that any normal apps also appear zoomed out when you are in the Activities view. This is kind of like Mission Control if you are used to a Mac. You’ll notice that both of the running apps, Firefox and Files are zoomed out here, placed side by side with the text below them describing what the App is. Click on any of these ‘thumbnailed’ (zoomed out) versions of the apps and it will immediately zoom back in to that particular app, making it very quick to switch between Apps.

Tux, The Linux Mascot

Tux tip: Press your Windows key on your keyboard (cmd on a mac) and you will automatically be taken to the Activities view so it’s even faster to get there!

Getting Virtual with desktops

A theme that has now become unified across Windows, Mac and GNOME, is the notion of Virtual Desktops.The benefit of having virtual desktops is that you can de-clutter your desktop workspace. Having lots of windows open on one desktop can quickly get distracting.

To launch a virtual desktop, enter the Activities view. On the right hand side you’ll see a drawer containing two thumbnails of a desktop; hover your mouse over the drawer, and the drawer automatically slides out. The desktop thumbnail at the top is the current (first) desktop. The next one is a blank desktop. Click on it and you’ll have a fresh desktop. If you launch an app now, it will start up on this second desktop. If you want to go back to the apps you were running on the first desktop, simply enter the Activities view once again, and click on the first desktop in the drawer. Notice also that once you have apps running in the second desktop, a third virtual desktop is created for you automatically.

Where are my files?

Gnome FilesIf you click on the Activities view. You’ll see ‘Files’ listed in the dock as one of the favourites. Click on this and you’ll see a file browser much like any other you may be used to. By default, you’ll be in grid (icons) view. On the right, note there are different views that can help you organise your files. The button with the 9 dots on it (top right) indicates that you are in grid view. The button to the immediate left with three dashed lines indicates the detailed view, which is what you can see in this screenshot. If you want extra details to appear by default in the list view. Click on the button with the down arrow and click ‘Visible columns’.

On the left hand pane of the file navigator, you’ll see favourite locations. You can add a location to your bookmarks (below the favourites) simply by dragging and dropping the folder of your choice to there.

If you have set up an online account set up with the likes of Google Drive/OneDrive/ownCloud etc, you’ll see any connected drives you might have. In this case, I have my Google Drive available. Clicking on this will allow you to view the files in your drive just as it were any normal folder (albeit a bit slower!).

Setting things up

GNOME Settings Drop-down menuWhen you first launched GNOME, the only thing you really noticed was that black bar across the top. On the right hand side, there is a bunch of icons. Click on any of them and you’ll see a drop down menu. It’ll show you the audio volume, It’ll show you your network connections (eg WiFi or Ethernet). It shows you your username and finally, three icons (Settings, Lock Screen and Power Off/Restart). Other items will appear here depending upon your computer and settings, but these are the basics. Much of the items in this menu will be self explanatory, but if you are using a laptop and if you aren’t already on WiFi or plugged into the network, you are going to want to do this. Click on the WiFi icon and a drop-down list offers you to select your WiFi base station from a list, as well as selecting other more advanced WiFi settings.

Many of these menus lead you to the gnome settings dialogue. This is always accessible by clicking  on the icon with the spanner & screwdriver. When you click this you can change most of the pertinent settings relating to your computer, from your background wallpaper, to power management settings. This is analogous to the Control Panel in Microsoft Windows, or System Preferences for a Mac.

The Gnome-settings dialogue
The Gnome-settings dialogue

Much of the items on the settings dialogue should be fairly self explanatory, so for the interests of brevity I’ll explain the more in-depth items only.

Online Accounts

This item is where your digital life becomes one. It combines all of the most common online services in one easy dialogue, so you’ll want to set this up before long. When you enter this setting, it’ll be empty apart from a button saying ‘Add an online account’. If you want to add more than one account (or remove one), note the + and – icons to the bottom left.

At the time of writing, you can add 10 different accounts. These are: Google, Facebook, Flickr, Microsoft Live, ownCloud, Pocket, Foursquare, Microsoft Exchange (calendar/email etc), Media Server and Other Accounts (such as standard IMAP/POP3 Email and AIM chat). Click on any of these to set them up.

Tux, The Linux Mascot

Tux tip: Your connections to cloud accounts like Google and Facebook will disconnect and you will have to re-authenticate periodically. This is to keep your accounts safe.

If you want to connect to your Google account for example, Click on the Google icon. It will ask you to enter your email address associated with your Google account, followed by its password. It will then ask you to give the GNOME desktop permissions to use Google’s features. Scroll to the bottom of that list of permissions and press ‘Allow’. You’ll now be presented with a list of toggle items which you can use your Google account within GNOME for. For example, Email, Calendar, Contacts, Chat, Files, Printers and Photos. Note that if you select them, they will automatically be downloaded to your computer.

Tux, The Linux Mascot

Tux tip: At the time of writing Files are not synchronised like they are with Google Drive on Windows or Mac. Rather you can upload and download files from your Google drive via the Files app. If you’d like to know how to use Google Files fully, check out this tutorial. It also shows ‘full synchronisation’ alternatives.

Notifications

Notifications are the pop-up messages that appear at the top of the screen when a particular App wants to make you aware of something. Just in the way that your mobile phone shows you an alert when someone sends you a message, for example. When apps are installed, they automatically get added to this list (if they are apps that use notifications). You can choose to disable notifications on an app-by-app basis, or switch off notifications entirely (Notification Banners – toggle to OFF). By default, notifications can be seen even when your screen is locked, so for example, you can see if you have a calendar appointment coming. You can switch this behaviour off too.

When you click on a particular app in the list, you can enable and disable specific notification items depending upon the context of the notifications the app makes. For example, an app may make sound alerts as well as pop-up banners. You may wish to add privacy by not showing the message content in the banner; this setting is the default. This may be useful to switch on for emails for example, so you can see whether an email is important to you or not, simply by seeing a preview of it in the notification banner. This saves you time having to switch back and forth to Evolution for email.

Network

In this settings dialogue you get to change the settings for your Network. This includes your Ethernet and WiFi adapter(s), set up a proxy, add a VPN, configure a VLAN and bond, team or bridge a network interface. If you want to change settings for any of the configured networks, click on the cog icon to the bottom-right.

Backups

By default, system backups are switched off. This option unlocks a very powerful, yet simple to use backup feature which works in a similar way to the ‘Time Machine’ app in macOS. You can schedule when your backup runs (eg, weekly, daily etc), whether each backup is kept indefinitely or not, which folders to ignore and where to store the backups.

By default, the backups are stored in your home folder on the local disk. You’ll want to change this, so Select one of the alternative storage locations from the drop-down list. These can be Amazon S3, Google Cloud, Rackspace Cloud or generic FTP/SSH/WebDav/Windows Share based locations.

Apps: E-mail, Chat, Audio and more

The following apps are pre-installed with Ubuntu GNOME 17.04. If your distribution differs, you may find that the apps are different. Just click on the ‘9 dots’ icon at the bottom of the Dock in the Activities view and you’ll see all of the Apps on your system just waiting for you to explore!

Browsing the web

Ubuntu GNOME has Firefox pre-installed. You can download Google Chrome from their website if that’s your fancy though. Firefox was built for Linux before it really got to Windows and Mac. You’ll find it works in exactly the same way as it does on Windows or Mac.

E-mail and Calendar

evolution mail Evolution is a powerful e-mail, calendaring and contact management productivity tool which can connect to your online accounts (eg Google, Microsoft Exchange etc). It works very much like Microsoft Outlook on a Windows PC does. Of course, if you prefer another email client, there’s plenty to choose from, Thunderbird and Claws and many more are great titles.

Music / Radio and Video

rhythmbox audio playerRhythmbox works like iTunes or similar. Copy your music from your Windows/Mac over to your Linux hard drive and you can play your tunes straight away. You can even mount your Windows/Mac hard drive partition so you don’t have to copy your music. You can also play music from Internet radio stations and cloud based audio including SoundCloud.

To view video files, simply click on your video in the File browser and it will launch the GNOME Video player. It’s no-nonsense approach is lovely, however if you are after a more fully featured video player, then there are tons to pick from. MPV is a good choice if you want to play the formats you need but still play videos with ease. The most popular video player is VLC, which is a cross-platform app that, whilst is a little more complex, it’ll play just about any movie file under the sun.

Photos

gnome photos
The spartan look of Gnome Photos.

As with all of the built-in GNOME apps, they are deliberately simple in nature. The files which are in the ‘Pictures’ folder, which is inside your Home folder, are automatically displayed. To organise your photos, you can assign photos to customised albums, and mark some as favourites.

If you have hooked up an online account which supports photo sharing (Google Photos for example), then you will see all of your cloud photos in there too (it will take a long time to synchronise if you are like me with thousands of photos!).

GNOME Photos is great for viewing and sorting, however, if you want to edit the photo, you will need a photo editing tool. If you want something really basic (a drop in replacement for Microsoft Paint), then use Pinta. If you are looking for the full power of something like Photoshop then try GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Project). Both of these apps can be installed through the GNOME Software tool which we mention below.

Word, Excel, Powerpoint: LibreOffice.

LibreOffice

LibreOffice is the de-facto Office suite for open source computer users. It supports Microsoft Office formats (mostly), and using the applications feel just like they should do. LibreOffice Writer is for word processing, Calc is for spreadsheets. Impress is for presentations. Math is for complex calculations. Whatever your office productivity needs, LibreOffice should have it covered.

GNOME also comes with an app called Documents, which allows you to view cloud based and local copies of PDFs and other cloud format format files (eg Google Spreadsheets/Docs).

The Rest

  • Chat: Talk online using Google Talk, AIM, Jabber, IRC etc, use Empathy.
  • BitTorrent Downloads: Transmission is your friend.
  • Zipped up files: Use file roller to decompress and compress file archives.
  • Scanning: Simple Scan will get you started.
  • Text Editing: Gedit edits text files easily.
  • Webcam: For snapping with your webcam, there is Cheese.
  • Weather: Yep, you guessed it, the Weather app is imaginatively titled, “Weather”!

How do I install more Apps?

GNOME SoftwareThere are hundreds of thousands of free apps just waiting to be explored in Linux. From CAD to Calculators, MS Visio alternatives to Vehicle maintenance apps.

To install anything, just launch the Software Center. In GNOME, its simply called ‘Software’, but each distribution may call it something slightly different. Software Center, App Store, Software Boutique; you get the idea!

For a very quick introduction to how to install software via the Software Center or via more traditional methods, see this tutorial.

Now that you are well on your way to being a bonafide Linux desktop user, have a look at Chapter Seven, which introduces you to many more fantastic open source apps, from E-Mail to music players, games to video editing, even how to use your Linux machine as a TV!